Most people in the west drink tea in big mugs because it’s easy to brew tea this way. However, people who are into Gong Fu Cha, which is the name for the Chinese Tea Ceremony, usually change their drinking habits to what people have been doing in China for centuries: using small teacups to drink tea.
The Chinese Tea Ceremony involves using small teaware like a small teapot and teacups to infuse whole tea leaves multiple times. There are several benefits of using small teacups to drink tea and this article offers a complete overview of why Chinese teacups are so small.
Chinese teacups are small because this allows for a better focus on taste and overall appreciation of the tea. Tea also cools down quicker when served in small cups and you can serve more guests with the same amount of tea.
The Chinese Tea Ceremony
Gong Fu Cha, which is the name of the Chinese Tea Ceremony, involves using a small teapot or gaiwan to brew whole tea leaves. They use a teapot of around 100-150ml, fill it with 5-6g of tea leaves and infuse it for 10-15 seconds. This can be done 10-15 times using the same tea leaves.
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A tea master then pours the liquid into a pitcher or fairness cup so the guests get an equal/fair share of the tea. This step isn’t part of the more traditional tea ceremony but is often done nowadays for convenience’s sake. The tea is then poured into the teacups and served to the guests.
If there is no pitcher, the tea master alternates between the different cups while pouring so the guests also get an equal cup of tea.
The cups that are used during this ceremony are usually really small for various reasons. One can only speculate on the real reason why they started using small cups centuries ago, but there are a couple of benefits to using small teacups for tea. The most important benefits are discussed below so you have a better idea of why small teacups are useful.
The main benefits of using small teacups
Better taste appreciation
The first benefit of why Chinese teacups are so small is the fact that it allows for better taste appreciation. If you’re drinking tea from a big mug, you just chug it without really paying attention to details and small nuances.
Drinking tea from small teacups adds a psychological layer as you’re naturally inclined to savor something more when there is only a small quantity available. There is less tea when you’re drinking from 40ml cups so you’re more likely to appreciate it more.
A tea session according to the Chinese Tea Ceremony results in many infusions of the same leaves and each infusion will be slightly different from the one before. You really need to focus and notice the slight differences to experience how the tea is evolving throughout the session.
You’re usually taking smaller sips when drinking tea from small cups, which makes you focus a lot more on what you’re tasting and you’ll be able to pick up small nuances of the tea.
Better temperature control
One of the most useful benefits of drinking tea in small cups is that it cools down a lot quicker than in a regular mug. You don’t have to wait for 10-15 minutes before you can take a sip as a couple of minutes should be enough for the tea to cool down in a 40ml cup.
Brewing tea according to the Chinese Tea Ceremony results in many infusions and many small cups of tea. If you have to wait for 10 minutes after each brew, it would take half a day to have a tea session.
Doing multiple infusions with the same tea and serving it in small cups is a way to keep the tea flowing and experience how it changes each infusion. Small volumes of tea allow it to cool down more quickly so you can enjoy 10-15 small cups of your favorite tea.
If tea was served in large mugs, you would only be able to drink 2-3 mugs in the same time frame.
Ability to serve more people
A final aspect worth discussing is another practical benefit of drinking tea in small cups. Drinking and serving tea is a social activity in many places around the world and it’s no exception that tea parties can have up to six guests.
It’s very common in China to invite people for tea and throughout history, many people have been brought together because of tea. If you were to serve tea in large mugs to six people, you would need a massive teapot and a hefty amount of tea for that single session.
The portions in small teacups are a lot smaller so it’s easier for your guests to empty the cup and drink another one. Most guests are drinking their tea at the same pace, which is always nice when everyone present is in the same flow.
If you’re brewing Gong Fu Cha (which you should), you would use a small teapot so there is less tea in each brew. If there is less available, you have less to offer your guests.
It’s better to let everyone enjoy a bit of tea than having to choose which guests get to taste the second infusion and which guests the third, fourth, …
There are various benefits to using small tea cups instead of large mugs. One can only guess why people in the east started using small tea cups, but looking at the benefits might give us an indication.
Using small tea cups, especially in the Chinese Tea Ceremony, allows for better taste appreciation, better temperature control, and the ability to serve more guests.
Not convinced? Try it yourself and notice how big of a difference there is between drinking tea in a large mug and carefully sipping tea from a small tea cup.